This is the tenth, and final, piece in a ten-part series looking at the fighters whose stories make Donald McRae’s Dark Trade the enduring classic that it is. Learn more about the 1st U.S. edition of Dark Trade: Lost in Boxing.
“You gotta put this guy on his ass. I’m serious now.”
Simple, that; as clear a prescription as you might deliver to a fighter who has already learned, committed to memory, embodied any lesson you might impart. There is only this left, young man, only this hurtful end—take your means and render it.
“This is your life, son!”
There’s simplicity there too, isn’t there? In place of prescription an existential appeal, one we dismiss as absurd in its hyperbole even from the mouths of men adept at asking the impossible. But there it is, young man, your life waiting to be legitimized—waiting for you to legitimize it.
When James Toney got off his stool before the twelfth round of his cruiserweight title fight with Vassiliy Jirov, did he believe, as trainer Freddie Roach told him, that he needed a knockdown to win? Who knows? If the effort he put forth in those remaining three minutes is any indication, however, he took Roach’s words to heart. Did Jirov step from his corner believing, as trainer Tommy Brooks proclaimed, that the next round would define him? Another mystery. But Jirov fought that round as though it were his last.
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James Toney hadn’t held a major world title in nine years. When you consider his talent, his toughness, his craft; that drought is rather remarkable. And it is disappointing. Because Toney was better than that; better than the weight-drained version of himself that Roy Jones. Jr. beat that November night in 1994 when Jones lifted Toney’s IBF super middleweight title and derailed perhaps the best fighter on the planet.
Toney’s was a slow return to relevance, one conducted away from the crowds and cameras befitting a fighter of his caliber. There were too many nights like the one Toney had at the Roseland Ballroom in Taunton, Massachusetts, where he decisioned Ramon Garbey, or at the Chinook Winds Casino in Lincoln City, Oregon, where he knocked out Michael Rush. But Toney remained active away from the spotlight, keeping a proper fighter’s schedule however sparse the crowds and dim the lights. He had to make a living, after all, had to continue a life lived in perpetual opposition, had to hit something. His toil took a turn for the better when Toney signed with promoter Dan Goossen, who had the money and savvy to return “Lights Out” to the spotlight, and understood how to motivate him. Goosen told Toney he was the future of Goossen-Tutor Promotions, all Toney needed to do was show himself worthy of that responsibility.
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Toney got his chance on April 26th, 2003, at the Foxwoods Resort in Mashantucket, Connecticut. Across the ring, and in the way was Jirov, the undefeated IBF cruiserweight champion. At twenty-nine, Jirov was five years younger than Toney and fresher than those five years might imply: Jirov had less than half the fights Toney—then with a record of 65-4-2 (42) —had in the ring and none of the ones Toney had with discipline. None, either, with the specter of permanent irrelevance. Toney understood more was at stake than the IBF title, admitting as much to the Los Angeles Times: “This is the future. This is my last chance,” he conceded before adding, “I want to leave my legacy behind as a great fighter.”
Expectations for the fight, which was broadcast by HBO for its Boxing After Dark series, were high: Jirov had built a reputation for sustained carnage and Toney, who iced James Robinson with a left hook in his previous fight, seemed perhaps in his renaissance. Trainer and HBO analyst Emanuel Steward, who had worked with Jirov for a short time, validated that enthusiasm, echoing it in his prefight analysis. Steward was right to be excited.
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The contrast in styles that played out over the course of the fight was foreshadowed during the fighter instructions. Toney, calm, knowing, almost trying to look unimpressed, fixed a cold eye on Jirov, who rocked back and forth, “The Tiger” pacing as the keys jingled at his cage door.
It was Jirov who carried the action early. This is not to say he was winning rounds; only that at the outset, he was the man most clearly attempting to affect change through pain. Brooks shouted at his fighter to “keep hitting something” and Jirov obliged, throwing nearly two hundred punches in the first two rounds. The fight quickly developed into a contest between a man who would throw everything to bury the punch he wanted (a left hook to the body) against a man who threw only what he needed. Toney, unflappable, seemed to welcome it all; but it is easy to imagine him, as he rolled, slipped, parried, countered, salvo after salvo, looking at this two-hundred-pound southpaw volume puncher and wondering: What is this motherfucker’s story?
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Born in Balkhash, Kazakhstan, Vassiliy Jirov was a Russian fighter long before being one streamlined for American invasion. After winning light heavyweight gold at the 1996 Olympics, where he was voted the outstanding boxer of the games, Jirov relocated to Arizona and turned pro. He picked up the IBF title in his twenty-first bout (knocking out Arthur Williams in seven rounds) and ran his record to 31-0 (27) by the time he stepped between the ropes against Toney. True, Jirov had faced no one like Toney over that span, but he was rugged and professional, forged in the cruel dungeons of the Russian amateur system, where he was subjected to a training regimen that bordered on torture. Yes, Jirov was a hard man; a fact Toney would come to appreciate.
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Heading into the second half of the fight Toney was still chipping away at Jirov with counter right hands, still walking him into counters, yet Jirov remained unperturbed and in pursuit. Still, if the early rounds inclined one to wonder how long Toney could hold up under pressure, by the seventh it was fair also to ask how long Jirov might reasonably endure the price of his style. Because he was paying for it. So what did Jirov do? He doubled down.
Jirov lost a point for a low blow in the eighth but refused to shy from throwing to the body; his punches smacked heavily into Toney’s arms and shoulders; he leaned into Toney, a tactic that not only taxed Toney’s stamina but forced him to square up, exposing him to Jirov’s right hand while taking some of the sharpness off his own. Physics began to close in on skill: Toney was the superior fighter, he appeared to be winning the fight, but Jirov, in his doggedness, even his crudity, was asking things of Toney better fighters might not.
Halfway through the tenth, Toney hurt Jirov with an uppercut and he wobbled him with a left hook as the round ended. And yet Jirov came right back in the eleventh, draping himself on Toney, digging to the body, paradoxically fighting his fight while losing.
But was he losing? The rounds had been difficult to score in part because Jirov’s volume, his ability to fight his fight, was as easy to apprehend as Toney’s subtle defense was difficult. The outcome seemed, at least in the eyes of the trainers and commentary team, to hang in the balance of the twelfth round. What followed was an unscripted drama unlike any other in sports.
The first two minutes of the twelfth were fought mostly evenly, which seemed to seal Toney’s fate. But that changed at the 1:10 mark when Toney momentarily jellied Jirov with a left hook. Jirov bit down and unloaded, looking for safety in the blend of leather. But with thirty seconds left, Toney cranked an unholy right hand off Jirov’s skull. “Oh my God, look at this!” yelled Steward, incredulous, as Jirov retaliated with a clean hook upstairs. He had his man, though, did Toney, and with the near-unbreakable Jirov and the elapsing seconds conspiring against him, he coolly unleashed the six-punch combination he spent twelve rounds earning. A right hand to the head started Jirov crumbling; Toney followed with a left hook to the body that seemed to shrink the man it struck, another to the head, a right uppercut, left hook, and a final right hand—all that to send Jirov to the canvas, all that and he fell only to his elbow.
Jirov beat the count and saw the final bell, there being only five seconds remaining when referee Steve Smoger restarted the action. But Toney strutted to his corner at fight’s end. And if he was unsure of the judges’ impressions he was sure enough of this: he was better than Jirov, and now everyone knew it. So too did the judges, who scored the fight unanimously in Toney’s favor 117-109 (twice) and 116-110.
Days later in his Monday column, former New York Times and New York Daily News boxing writer Michael Katz, called Jirov an “arm-punching amateur.” In that perhaps too-dismissive description there is a rather profound compliment to Toney: at thirty-five, and probably fifteen pounds above his optimal weight, he could make even a champion look like an amateur. There is a compliment too in Jirov’s bitter recollection of the fight. Speaking of his first defeat, he told Boxing News Online: “I think he was on some kind of medication. Any time [before] when I hit [an opponent] with my punches, they went down. Now, he was taking everything. It’s impossible.” Jirov might have seen in Toney’s move to heavyweight—where he fought six months later, where he tested positive for nandrolone in 2005—as proof that Toney was gearing up to face much larger men. But Jirov fought but one great fighter in his career, and it should surprise no one, least of all Jirov, that that great fighter could take everything he had.
Against Jirov, Toney reminded those who might question what he had left how great he was. And those who had never learned? Well, they would now never forget.